Against the Cavaliers, the Raptors are probably screwed.
That statement was true before Toronto’s 116-105 loss in Game 1, and it remains true today as Game 2 looms. It’s the sobering reality that hangs over this entire series — the Cavs are the defending champions, and vastly outgun the Raptors talent-wise. Normally, success in a series is defined by whether or not a team tallies four wins. Against these Cavs, that criteria becomes muddled by the black cloud of existential dread that LeBron James carries with him into any series with a non-Warriors opponent. For the Raptors, some simple signs of growth in comparison to last year’s tango with the league’s best player will do.
It’s easy to underestimate how all-encompassing LeBron’s presence is in the days leading up to a series against him. Coaches surely devise defensive tactics they think will work to slow him down, and hopeful fans talk themselves into their team having the personnel to impede him a precious little bit.
When you’re up against James in the flesh, though, you come to truly appreciate his basketball omnipotence. The months of talk about this Raptors team being more equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Cavs wasn’t unfounded by any means; Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker both bring elements to Raptors that were sorely missing in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. It didn’t matter in Game 1. It took all of three minutes for LeBron to wipe away any illusions of the Raptors being the team destined to end his rule over the East.
Kyrie Irving starts the game off with the SICK off-the-glass alley-oop to LeBron James! pic.twitter.com/wlOsu43YGY— NBA Buzz (@OfficialNBABuzz) May 1, 2017
LeBron’s greatness rightfully spawns reductive logic. As much as Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked defense and listless regular season play were red flags doubling as sources of hope for the competition, LeBron is a master tradesman capable of plastering over cracks in his teams when the leverage is highest. His track record is long enough now that you’d be naive to not expect a “Playoff LeBron” boost for his teams once mid-April rolls around. It was just 11 months ago that the singular power of James was enough to tilt the balance in Cleveland’s favour against the greatest regular season team of all-time.
The Raptors are good, sure. The 2016 Warriors, they are not.
Toronto’s margin for error against the Cavs is suffocatingly small. And subtle ploys to squeeze extra points out on offense and knock a couple off Cleveland’s score can only do so much. LeBron renders discussions of Xs and Os minutia irrelevant, his individual ability superseding perceived analytical edges the Raptors might be able to massage. Opposing teams have attempted to strike a balance in the ageless debate of how to best address his offensive brilliance for seven years — it’s still not clear whether or it’s smarter to single cover or double-team him.
Toronto has confronted the LeBron post-season riddle seven times in the last year. So far, Dwane Casey is no closer to a solution than the Steve Kerrs, Mike Budenholzers, Tom Thibodeaus and Frank Vogels before him were. Leave DeMarre Carroll or P.J. Tucker on a desert island with LeBron, you’re begging for a blow-by and assault on the rim. Send a second defender his way, and you’d better be ready to chase the ball as he initiates a swing around the perimeter. It’s beautifully simple and at the same time impossibly complex.
The general rule of thumb for teams with a competent wing defender is to resist the temptation to double LeBron — making him work for a two is typically preferable to one of Cavs’ cast of knock-down shooters draining a wide-open three. What’s discouraging is when LeBron sees your single coverage and opts to create an open perimeter look anyway with one of his too-easy cross-court passes.
That’s hardly fair. Neither is the fact that LeBron’s 35-point, 10-rebound four-assist Game 1 falls under the “just okay” category of LeBron playoff games. He toyed with the Raptors on Monday, hunting for his own shot seemingly because he could. With the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, there were possessions where it felt as though he were playing a game of mid-range HORSE against himself.
On nights where Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are quiet, LeBron can elevate others to their level. Game 3 against the Pacers in round one stands out as proof of that — Irving and Love combined to shoot 8-of-29 while James merely carried Cleveland’s aging reserves to the biggest second half comeback in NBA playoff history.
When Irving and Love are fully functioning — as they were in Game 1 — the Cavs become a LeBron-led steamroller.
There are certainly ways in which the Raptors can try and rope the Cavs into a more tightly contested series than Game 1 portended.
Kyle Lowry’s rejuvenation needs to extend beyond the 20 points and 11 assists on 7-of-13 shooting he produced on Monday. It was refreshing to see Lowry with room to breathe in Game 1. After dealing with a jungle of arms on nearly every trip down the court against Milwaukee, the Cavs’ traps in seemed dainty by comparison.
Lowry should have the space he’ll need to build off of his Game 1 effort. In theory, DeMar DeRozan should too. His four costly turnovers were the result of uncharacteristically errant passes. Apart from a couple instances, he seemed unbothered when Cleveland swarmed. DeRozan’s body of work this season suggests he’ll grow more accustomed to the Cavs’ aggression and turn it against them as the series progresses. Toronto’s shot creation and ball movement were hardly their biggest problems on Monday — they created 41 uncontested looks (hitting 19-of-41, and just three fewer than Cleveland’s 44) and assisted on 22 of 39 baskets. Game 1 provided little proof that the Cavs’ defense is going to be a persistent barrier to Toronto in this series.
Of greater concern was the rotation. Casey reverted back to the starting lineup that now boasts an efficiency slash line of 105.6 / 130.3 / -24.7 NET in a team-leading 44 playoff minutes. Trotting out Jonas Valanciunas — and to a lesser extent DeMarre Carroll — to open games is untenable; the data suggests that lineup choice is actively going to put Toronto in holes against a team that thrives on keeping opponents in the rear-view with spellbinding runs of unguardable offense. Tucker should be starting and shadowing LeBron. Valanciunas might not even have a place in this series. Tristan Thompson is the only Cavs’ centre he can realistically match up against, but the merits of playing him opposite a traditional centre are unclear if his rebounding and scoring outputs are underwhelming. There are no perfect solutions, but prioritizing athleticism and defensive wits at the five could be a way for Casey to dig into the Cavaliers’ edge. Ibaka, Patrick Patterson and even Jakob Poeltl all make more sense than JV as spry centres for the Raptors to throw at Cleveland.
Patterson draining more open looks, having Lowry and DeRozan be their best selves, chopping Tucker’s arc-stepping toes off and re-jigging the sub patterns are all partial measures the Raptors can implement to try and even the math equation that will decide this series. Getting them all to coalesce at once might even yield a win or two — or least keep these games interesting into crunch time.
But the truth of the matter is, too many of the fine points need to point Toronto’s way in order to swing the balance of the series; a force like LeBron is often a magnet for good luck and helpful breaks. As he’s proven every spring since 2011, James has the ultimate say in any Eastern Conference playoff series.
This is Toronto’s unfortunate reality in this series and beyond. In the moments where Cleveland is erasing any sort of built-up hope, the futility of life the East can creep into one’s mind and make you question why a team like the Raptors should even strive for second. With no end in sight to LeBron’s beer-sipping dominance, stripping down and kicking the can five years down the road might be the best course of action if winning a championship is in fact the ultimate goal.
That’s a joyless outlook. If every franchise took the “wait ‘til he retires approach,” LeBron’s reign would be entirely dull. The annual search for James’ next runner-up may be hollow, but it’s compelling — at least in a regular season context; it may be the single strangest badge of honour worth fighting for in sports. And while the East is wrought with inevitability, there’s far more satisfaction to be gleaned from taking on LeBron and losing than there is in rotting in basement-dwelling obscurity.
A second-straight blowout loss to Cleveland might send the Raptors on the road towards the latter status. Keeping an inherently flawed band together would be a tough enough sell if it didn’t come with an historic luxury tax bill. Maybe three more Game 1-like performances will convince the front office that Ibaka isn’t a long-term pillar, or that Lowry’s age and playoff foibles aren’t worth the risk of a fifth year on a max contract this summer.
Making franchise-altering decisions in the face of anomalous greatness is treacherous ground, though. Being lesser than LeBron and the Cavs doesn’t diminish the organizational equity the Raptors have accrued over the last four seasons, nor does a second-round loss knock Toronto back down to the level of the teams that couldn’t reach this point.
We’re in the midst of an era of basketball being defined by a perfect player. Considering the alternatives, there’s no shame if the Raptors settle for being perfectly fine.